I first met William Hamilton Gibson on the pages of Harper’s New Weekly Magazine for 1878.
There, in exquisite detail, was an illustration of two intertwined peacock feathers on the title page of the article “Birds and Plumage.” My subsequent search through the pages of Harpers turned up many more of these detailed illustrations including many articles both written and illustrated by him.
The quality of his art led me to realize that Gibson needed to be reintroduced to modern Newtown and the best way to do this is with the exhibit of his work, which is currently on view in the reference room of the Library.
Gibson was born in Sandy Hook in 1850. His father was Edward T.H. Gibson a wealthy stockbroker and his mother was Charlotte Sanford, the daughter of an old Newtown family based in Sandy Hook. The homestead was located where the Methodist Church is today on lower Church Hill Road and the 70 acre grounds extended southward across the Pootatuck River to the boundary of what would later become Fairfield Hills.
In this semi-cultivated wilderness young Gibson spent hours observing and sketching nature. He spent so much time in fact, that according to his biographer John Coleman Adams, he developed a reputation amongst the local as a n’er-do-well and dreamer who would never amount to much.
The exhibit serves to prove how wrong the Sandy Hook natives were.
The center piece is a series of illustrations from the first Harper’s article that he wrote and Illustrated, “Snug Harbor and Hometown.” This article chronicles a return to his childhood home after an absence of about 20 years. With thinly veiled pseudonyms, he describes the people and illustrates the homestead and its garret collection of antiques -- past their useful life but frugally deposited there by previous generations of inhabitants.
He then describes the carriage ride down along the banks of the Housatonic River and over into Washington to the boarding school, which he calls the "Snuggery" after the old headmaster Mr. Snug. The headmaster is clearly Mr. Gunn and the school the Gunnery, where Gibson acquired his secondary education.
The illustrations are wonderfully romantic as is his Victorian style of writing. The detailed nature of his art with the tendency of the details of the picture to spill out of the frame and into the text became a style that would effect magazine illustration into the early 20th century
The exhibit also shows his humor. An engraving titled “Some Art Connoiseurs,” show a small group of grasshoppers contemplating a painting of a local church, seemingly forgotten after it was left leaning against a tuft of grass.
His articles were so popular that they were collected in a series of books. One of these is part of the display, showing the cover art, which was also executed and colored by Gibson.
He died young in 1896 at the age of 46, and we can only speculate on what he could have accomplished had he lived longer. Here was a local man, a self taught artist, who brought a love of nature to thousands of people through his meticulous illustrations.
He achieved a national reputation and thereby deserves the reexamination that the exhibit provides.
The Gibson exhibit can be seen on the third floor of the Cyrenius H. Booth library through the end of April. There is also an essay on Gibson’s life and work, which is free to anyone who wants to know more about him.